Thomas Henry Kunz:  1938-2020

Tom at Sargent Camp, NH, summer 2011.
Courtesy of Kunz Family.

Gary F. McCracken
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996

Reprinted from Bat Research News, Vol. 61: No. 2 (Summer 2020) with permission of the publisher, Dr. Margaret A. Griffiths. All rights reserved.

Tom Kunz ranks among the great bat biologists of all time. This is not only because of his tremendous contributions to our knowledge of bat biology--including over 260 peer-reviewed publications and 6 edited volumes on bat research. And, not only because of his outstanding record of training graduate students (as major professor to 31 Ph.D. students and 15 M.S. students), his mentoring of 17 Post-doctoral associates, and his providing research opportunities to scores of undergraduate students. But also because of his humanity. Those of us who knew Tom well and had the good fortune and privilege to work with him have lost a great friend, mentor, and motivator. Those of you who may not have known him well, or missed the opportunity to know him personally, have undoubtedly heard many stories of his charisma and his joyful presence. His openness and friendliness and the generosity in which he gave attention and time to generations of young scientists are legendary in the NASBR community. We'll miss the infectious, "boyish" smile that he maintained well into his 70's, his dancing (sort of) the Macarena at the annual NASBR banquets, and his deeley bopper batman costume. Although he was temperate in his use of alcohol, he was invariably among those who stayed out into the wee hours during the pub crawl after the banquet.

In an autobiographical sketch Becoming a Mammalogist: On the Wings of Heros written in 2005, Tom gave his thoughts on the "traits needed to be a successful biologist." In no "particular order" these traits included: "passion for organismal biology, passion for reading, passion for writing, field and laboratory skills, common sense, patience, perseverance, enthusiasm, and a commitment to do your best." Tom's career accomplishments demonstrate that he possessed each of these traits. But in eulogizing Tom and his career, I respectfully think that he out left a few traits, and that more detail on how they translated into his accomplishments are important if we are to truly appreciate what Tom has done for all of us during his long and successful career.

Tom Kunz was "fearless" in his approach to science. He was not afraid to pursue any problem or any question that grabbed his interest. He knew no fear. If he lacked the skills that were needed to pursue a project--isotope chemistry, genetics, epidemiology, mathematical modeling, radar technology..., whatever--he would identify someone who had those skills and cajole them to collaborate with him. But in Tom's case, being "cajoled" did not just mean succumbing to intense coaxing or flattery. If you collaborated with Tom, you could count on being rewarded--you would be a Co-PI on grants, invited to write book chapters and a coauthor on papers. Tom had an uncanny genius for identifying projects and for "smelling out" possible sources of funding for those projects. He also had the energy to carry more than his load of the work, to make sure that he and you met deadlines, and to do whatever was necessary to be successful.

His fearlessness and his natural ability to forge collaborations put Tom at the forefront of interdisciplinary research in bats. Interdisciplinary research now is seen, and supported by funding agencies, as the best way to engage in science. Although this was not so overtly recognized when Tom was in the early stages of his career, Tom appears to have seen it clearly. Later in his career when National Science Foundation (NSF) and other funding agencies developed interdisciplinary granting initiatives, Tom was at the forefront of tapping into those programs.

Another central theme in Tom's research was his interest in the development and application of techniques. As an example, his early work on reproduction, postnatal growth and resource allocation in bats required information on activity patterns, diets, daily and seasonal energy budgets, the energetics of lactation, the mineral and energy contents of milk, and techniques for aging bats. Tom with the help of his students and numerous collaborators pioneered new techniques to obtain quantitative data in all of these areas. In other instances, such as the effectiveness of bat capture methods or assessing diets from insect fragments in feces, Tom engaged in experiments to ascertain the limits and precision of existing techniques. As his career advanced, his research program embraced more and more advanced and complex technologies. These included the application of doubly-labelled water to assess energy budgets, genetic analyses of parentage and relatedness in bat social groups, the use of advanced thermal imaging to count millions of bats, the application of various radar systems to document flights of bats aloft, and multiple applications of modern DNA technology to examine diets and pathogens from rabies to the fungus that causes white nose-syndrome (WNS). All these technologies were part of Tom's research program, and all were done with collaborators.


                                                                                                Tom at work in Uvalde, Texas, 2006.               Tom and Pat Morton at Bamburger Ranch, 2004.
Photos courtesy of Nickolay Hristov

Passions for reading and writing also were listed by Tom as traits contributing to his success. But, add to these passions two other traits that he also listed---patience and perseverance---and we have Tom the Editor. Between 1982 and 2009, Tom edited or co-edited six books on the biology of bats Ecology of Bats, Plenum Press, 1982; Ecological and Behavioral Methods for the Study of Bats, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988; Bat Biology and Conservation, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998; Bat Ecology, University of Chicago Press, 2003; Functional and Evolutionary Ecology of Bats, Oxford University Press, 2006; and the 2nd Edition of Ecological and Behavioral Methods for the Study of Bats, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). The two Ecological and Behavioral Methods books have served as handbooks for bat researchers around the world. The four other volumes summarize the then current state of knowledge and give directions for future research in ecology, evolution, behavior, and the conservation of bats. These volumes not only inspired and served as resources for bat researchers, they also gave authors and co-authors outlets for ideas and synthesis papers that might otherwise not be published. As the beneficiary of these volumes as a "consumer", but also as co-author to several chapters and co-editor of one volume, I've always been grateful to Tom for his "passions" and his patience and perseverance. These edited volumes should be credited among Tom's greatest contributions to bat research, and they are even more amazing given Tom's contribution of over 260 papers of primary research. Tom's son, David, remembers his Dad falling asleep in front of his home computer--no wonder.

I know from discussions with Tom, that these volumes were not solely in service to the bat research community. They also served Tom in providing him an overview of the state-of-the-art in bat research, roadmaps to potentially productive directions of inquiry, and sources of ideas and potential collaborators for his own research.

Thomas Henry Kunz was born on June 11, 1938 in Independence, Missouri, the second son of William H. Kunz and Edna F. (Dornfeld) Kunz. His mother was a homemaker and his father worked for over 35 years for the Kansas City Power and Light Company. By his own accounting, Tom had a classic American childhood. He was close to his parents, athletic, competitive with his older brother Jim, and an Eagle Scout. Tom credits a 5th grade teacher, Alma Read, as stimulating his early interest in biology, an interest that was enhanced by his 10th grade biology teacher at East High School, Eleanore Canny. Tom was a multi-sport athlete and helped the East High School varsity football team achieve a 10-0 record and win the Kansas City Championship. After graduating from high school in June 1956, Tom enlisted for a 6-month tour of active duty in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. After his military service, Tom worked six months doing road survey work for the Missouri Highway Department.

Tom enrolled at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, Missouri in 1957 where he majored in biology and physical education. He played on the varsity football team and was a co-captain of the football team his senior year. Central Missouri State University offered small class sizes and frequent field trips and three professors in the Biology Department, Richard F. Myers, Oscar Hawksley, and Laura Nahm, greatly influenced Tom's interests in field biology and conservation. After graduating with a B.S. in Biology in 1961, Tom was invited to coach the freshman football team and was able to simultaneously pursue a Master's degree in Education that he received in 1962. A big event in his personal life occurred in the fall semester 1961, when he met Margaret Louise Brown who was on faculty at Central Missouri State as an Instructor in the Department of Business. Tom and Margaret were married on December 27, 1962.


                                                                                                               Wedding of Tom and Margaret Kunz          Margaret and Tom Kunz
                                                                                                                             December 27,1962                                   Christmas 2019
Photos courtesy of Kunz family

For the next four years Tom taught biology and coached football and track at Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas. During this time, Tom applied to participate in the NSF Summer Institute in Biology for high school teachers which, following the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik, had been established to enhance science education in the United States. As an NSF scholar Tom was supported for one summer at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. During that summer he developed an avid interest in collecting bats and began a correspondence with E. Raymond Hall at the University of Kansas, resulting in his earliest publications. He then applied for and received a second NSF scholar award and spent the next three summers at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. He was awarded a Master's degree in Biology from Drake University in l968.

In Fall 1967, Tom enrolled in the doctoral program in the Department of Systematics and Ecology at the University of Kansas where J. Knox Jones, a former doctoral student of E. Raymond Hall, was Tom's major professor. Tom completed his Ph.D. in 1971 with a dissertation based on field research in Kansas and Oklahoma focused on the population biology and reproduction, growth and development of the cave bat, Myotis velifer. While a graduate student Tom presented a paper ("Reproductive patterns and development of Myotis velifer in Kansas") at the very first meeting of the North American Symposium on Bat Research (NASBR) --then called Symposium on Bat Research in the Southwest--in 1970. Subsequently, until 2011, he participated in all but one of the annual NASBR meetings.

Tom accepted a faculty position in the Department of Biology at Boston University in 1971 and remained at Boston University for his entire career. In addition to his research, teaching, and mentorship of students and post-docs, Tom's long and successful career was marked by significant service to the University, including Chair of the Biology Department (1985-1990), Co-Founder and long-time Director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador, and Founder and Director of Boston University's Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology. He was an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, served as President of the American Society of Mammalogists, and was named a life-time honorary member of the American Society of Mammalogists. He received a Life-time Achievement Award from the Karst Waters Institute and won the Gerrit S. Miller Award for outstanding service and research to bat biology, and the C. Hart Merriam Award for outstanding contributions to mammalogy. In 2011 he was named William Warren Fairfield Distinguished Professor, Boston University's highest faculty honor.


                                                                                                               Tom photographing bat exodus.       Tom conducting outreach at Frio Cave
                                                                                                                             Texas,2007                                                    undated
                                                                                                          (Photo courtesy of Nickolay Hristov)       (Photo provided by Gary McCracken)

Tom was always productive, but his productivity and the diversity and geographic reach of his research portfolio increased dramatically during the latter part of his career. Until the early-to-mid-1990's most of his work was focused on activity patterns, reproduction and growth, and the physiological ecology of bats in and around northeastern North America. In the 1980's he was beginning to venture into the tropics and the southwestern United States, but only about 1/4 of his peer-reviewed work dates from what was chronologically the first half of his career. His publication rate then jumped, and Tom entered a period of sustained momentum in which he continuously juggled multiple projects in many parts of the world, including India, Malaysia, several Neotropical countries and, of course, North America. The extent and breadth of this work is astounding. His interests in reproduction and physiological ecology remained, but he became more focused on behavior and issues related to bat conservation. Examples of these studies, all done with collaborators and many excellent students, include roosting behavior and sociality in foliage-roosting bats, flight behavior, conservation of tropical bat community assemblages, disease ecology, and the ecosystem services of bats. Tom's network of collaborators and the arsenal of technologies that he was able to bring to projects continued to expand.

I was fortunate to engage with Tom for over three decades on many projects. Our collaborations began in the 1980's when we combined skills to investigate the behavioral context and energetic costs of non-parental nursing in Brazilian free-tailed bats, Tadarida brasiliensis. This was followed by field work together on tent making bats in Trinidad, and then a series of field studies and workshops on disease ecology, the continental expansion of WNS, high-altitude foraging, and the ecosystem services of Brazilian free-tailed bats in Texas. When we were last in the field together in Texas in June 2011, I asked Tom if he ever thought of retirement. "What would I do?," he asked. He then said, "Maybe when I'm 80?"

On the evening of October 26, 2011, Tom's career was cut short when he was struck by a car and suffered a head injury while walking to the opening ceremony of the 41st Annual NASBR meeting in Toronto, Canada. At that time Tom was directing 7 Ph.D. students and had grants from 6 different funding agencies. He was, as always, integrating a host of collaborators and technologies and was at the height of his efforts to define and establish the emerging field of Aeroecology.

Tom resided in recent years at Newbridge on the Charles nursing facility in Dedham, Massachusetts where he enjoyed daily visits with his wife Margaret, and other visits with family and friends. Throughout that time Margaret kept Tom's many friends informed of his progress. I'm grateful to have had a phone conversation with Tom on March 30, 2020, in which we updated each other on our families, reminisced about old friends and relived many adventures. Tom died on April 13, 2020 from complications from COVID-19. He was preceded in death by his parents and brother Jim. He is survived by his wife Margaret, daughter Pamela, son David, and 5 grandchildren. Tom was a highly successful academician and an attentive and devoted husband, father, and grandfather. He was great friend and colleague to many.


                                                                                                               Tom at Chiroptorium, 2010.                           Gary McCracken and Tom Kunz, 2006
Photos provided by Gary McCracken

Reprinted from Bat Research News, Vol. 61: No. 2 (Summer 2020) with permission of the publisher, Dr. Margaret A. Griffiths. All rights reserved.

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